Sunday, August 29, 2010

Recent Haitian history in a nutshell

So a friend asked for more detail on Haiti and I wrote at length about it - that makes it easier to blog about and polish since I already have written a bunch of text!

My last post about the book on Haiti's history was a tad melodramatic, but I stand by that b/c it is a very dramatic history. So basically from 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by two dictators, Francois Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (nicknamed Papa Doc and Baby Doc respectively). As the 80s went on, people really started getting frustrated with the government. Pope John Paul II visited in 1983 and tried to get people more active in public life, to make a difference, and criticized the inequality of wealth, isolation of the rich from the poor, and so on.

During the 80s, liberation theology (pointing out that a major theme of the gospels is equality of all people and concern for the poor) is becoming better known in Haiti and is being taught in many churches. The very poorest people start banding together and thinking about how to stand up for their rights. Jean Baptiste Aristide, a Catholic priest devoted to liberation theology and nonviolence is asked to run for president by his supporters. He reluctantly does, and sees it as his cross to bear. He is overwhelmingly voted as president in 1990, following which there are two Haitian military coups and he is outsted 8 months into his term in September 1991. (The first one was preemptive, a month before he officially took office but after he was elected - this failed b/c so many people turned up at the national palace to protest and block the action).

The US didn't really like him because he saw how much damage US policies did to the Haitian poor. Most of the foreign aid to Haiti was contigent on Haiti accepting economic policies that benefitted the US (keeping tariffs and taxes low, letting food imports flood Haiti's market destroying local production and self-sufficiency, keeping the minimum wage low even tho it was only $1-2/day - that is NOT enough to live on here!). Even though the US goes around "saving" countries from violent dictator coups, the US didn't do anything and even subtely sided with the military coup. (1991) Then Clinton becomes president and figures he needs a foreign policy success so decides to help Aristide get back into office (a repressive and violent gov't has existed in these three years between 1990 and 1993 when clinton decides to help). Once again, the US (under Clinton) has demands on what economic policies Haiti must take with regard to trade with the US, being unfair, selling off state owned business to the highest bidder no matter who it is, etc. (Apparently this is called untrammeled privitization - I want to learn more about this term.) Aristide negotiates an agreement saying that he will sell off those businesses but doesn't want it to be untrammeled - he wants to make sure that the profits of running the business go not to foreigners but to people in Haiti, and to set up arrangments that some profits will actually go to the poor (to finance development projects) and to the local communities of the factories. The US agrees, helps him get back to be president, and then reneges on its promise. The US says, no you can't do that - we got you back in power and if you want aid you have to do things our way even though previously we negotiated on this. Aid is makes up something like 50% of the total gov't's revenue, so Aristide had no choice. (Many people outside of Haiti criticize Aristide for his so-called compromises, but it turns out that more often than not he was actually forced to accept some policies that weren't the best for the poor.)

The hypocritical thing in the US pursuing democracy and open markets is that this is FAR more "open market" than the United States itself, which has regulations both for safety and to protect its own financial interests (such as subsidies or tariffs to benefit US farmers). The US requires specifically that Haiti have none of these financial protections, and the economy is wrecked as the US prospers by being able to dump all sorts of products on Haiti, and buy cheap stuff from Haiti at starvation wages. (Haiti has one of the most liberal, or open, markets of any country in the Western Hempisphere - far more so than the US.)

Even so, with limited funds and people trying to kill him, Aristide raises the minimum wage to $5/day, starts housing, job projects, education, and literacy projects that actually work for the people living in the slums, and so forth. He also abolishes the army! He saw that throughout its history the army has only been used to oppress the poor and support dictators. Haiti has never had to defend itself from a foreign gov't after independence in 1803 (+/- a few years) and its military budget eats a large portion of its total budget. An American military person (quoted in the book) even admitted it was a wise thing to do. So what did Aristide do with the old Army Headquarters? He turned it into the HQ for Women's Affairs!!! Isn't that great?!?! And to be fair, he even did make a reintegration package for army people to give them money and training so they could integrate into society. He wasn't a jerk about it!

The Haitian elite hates him (1% of the people have 60% of the wealth - it truly is an insulated, small elite) and pretty much hate the poor people. The corrupt, high ranking army folk hate him too. He finishes the last approx. 1.5 years of his term (serving a total of about 2 years of a 5 year term). After that, in 1996-2000 he does not run for president but stays active helping organize with the poor and (the vast majority of Haitians) their grassroots political party - Lavalas (Kreyol word meaning "flood" and "all of us together"). After his term is up, the US pressures the next gov't to undo everything, make the minimum wage $1-2 per day again for the sweatshops, etc.

2000 rolls around and Aristide runs for president again. He wins overwhelmingly in an election that the UN and international community both agree is a fair election. Lavalas also wins overwhelming majorities in ALL levels of government in the legislative elections held a few months after the presidential election. There is one minor flaw in legislative elections (not presidential elections), but the UN and international community openly say this flaw did not actually affect the outcome of the elections in any way. The new Bush administration does not like Aristide and twists this, quoting out of context and inventing lies, to say that he is a dictator that rigged the elections. The US pays for Haitian militants of the previous regime (1991-1993 folks, and others) to have military training at an army base in Georgia (yes, the US state and a US army base) and the Dominican Republic. A massive propaganda campaign is undertaken to smear Aristide's image.

Towards the end of 2003, these people funded in part by the US literally start taking over towns, driving out and killing the police, burning police stations, and burning government buildings. They openly say that their goal is to take over the government through force and killing Aristide's supporters. The US calls these people freedom fighters and says it's a sign that the dictator Aristide has lost his moral credentials and popularity. Yet, whenever the opposition has a public protest, Aristide supporters literally outnumber them by 10 or 20 times. One attempted coup happened and tens of thousands of Aristide supporters showed up to surround the palace and most people in the paramilitary group just wouldn't openly slaughter ALL those people to get to Aristide. (Even back in the 1980s, people would try to kill Aristide as he preached a sermon, and church people would take bullets for him and they'd manage to get him out.)

So even though this paramilitary opposition has so much power and has literally taken over several cities in Haiti (including the one I'm staying in now - but this was back in 2003-4), they can't take Port-au-Prince (PAP - the capital) because the million poor people there love Aristide. He knows the poor and has walked with them his whole adult life, not telling them what to do, but listening and trying to assist. The US has banned all arms exports to Haiti, so the police there do not have supplies (the ban extends even to bullet proof vests, riot shields, tear gas, and rubber bullets). Remember, though, the paramilitary opposition does have US funded weapons through the Dominican Republic. South Africa, an Aristide ally, (Nelson Mandela supports him) sends a shipment to the legitimate Haitian police.

The US sees that the militants, even though they have far superior force, cannot touch Aristide and accomplish the coup. The day before the South African arms shipment for the police arrives, the US literally swoops in with Marines and abducts Aristide and his wife (Feb 28 or 29, 2004). The US denies this. The US takes him to the Central African Republic where he has no ties/relationships and he is held under house arrest as his opponents take over Haiti's government over the next few days. The US claims that Aristide asked for assistance to flee Haiti and requested to be taken to the Central African Republic (where he knows no one and where it's another dictatorship), and said that Aristide's request for asylum in South Africa (where he has allies) was turned down. The South African government formally responds saying they were never asked in the first place to receive Aristide...hmm. Shortly thereafter, they welcome him with open arms.

The book also points out that before the coup where the US snatched him away, in the years 2001-2003, there were very few protestant churches in Haiti backed by the US (financed by US churches). All of a sudden, tons of conservative evangelical churches move to Haiti and start teaching that only the afterlife matters, not the quality of life in this life. I forget the number, but it was a huge difference during those years - something like 50 expanding to 500.

AFTER the coup (Aristide abducted by US), UN peacekeepers are *finally* sent to Haiti. The UN people are told that the poor people who are mostly doing nonviolent protests but occassionaly get violent in defense or anger at the paramilitaries are the enemy. Everywhere else in the world, UN peacekeepers help set up negotiations, get both sides talking, and so forth. Not here! The propaganda campaign against Aristide has been so effective that most mainstream media publishes only anti-Aristide baloney about him being a dictator, etc. The big world powers say that the military government in charge is legitimate and everyone else are enemies to be killed. The UN literally supports raids into poor slums of PAP where Aristide suppoerters/activists and sometimes randomly people are killed and terrorized. What the hell! Some mainstream media and major human rights organizations notice that there seems to be a major imbalance of power and criticizes the UN operations as facilitating death squads (providing cover for and blocking exits so the paramilitary folks can kill more safely and effectively). Occassionally the media does note the overwhelming popular support (i.e. *democratic* support) for Aristide. Many, many Aristide supporters are killed. In 2006, Rene Preval becomes president (same guy who was president 1995-2000). He's not horrible, but does little to improve the condition of the poor. Many people here aren't crazy about him but were thankful for peace during this period.

Now, Haiti is having elections this November, for the presidential term 2011-2015. I personally think that some of the popularity of Wycliffe (singer who wanted to run for president but can't b/c he doesn't live in Haiti) was due to the fact that he is NOT a politician. Many of the poor were so glad that Aristide was a priest, not a politician, as most people here really don't trust the politicans. History does teach them not to! More so than that, Aristide knew and worked alongside the poor. When he was first inaugurated (1991) he had a huge picnic and pool party at the national palace where thousands of poor people from nearby slums in PAP were invited!

There are 19 people running for president of Haiti in November. The first portion of the election determines the top two candidates. There is then a second round of voting just for those two candidates. I don't know nearly as much about the period 2007-present b/c the book ended at January 2007 (book was released early 2007). Yvon Neptune, Aristide's Prime Minister during his second presidency, is one of the candidates. I got a good impression of him from the book, and he was quoted quite regularly. I confirmed on Wikipedia that Neptune was prisoned illegally, along with other high-ranking gov't officials during Aristide's term, and subject to inhumane treatment. International human rights organizations condemned this, and at one point even the US commented negatively on the political punishment of the previous gov't by the current gov't without any grounds.

So that's it in a big nutshell, and all this info is substantially, very well quoted and referenced in the book.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Here are some pictures of the rooftop garden and compost (dry) toilet, with Dante featured. These correspond to some of the projects I mention in the previous post below. I need to take pictures that show a better view and perspective of the roof but this is a fine start.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New projects!

So I've got some more projects to do now! I'll give a small recap of what I've done lately.

Dante and I have been working on the rooftop garden and compost pile. We did a bunch of cleaning, clearing away of old "yard" waste (mostly into the compost!), sprucing up, and work on the compost piles themselves. (Harvesting finished compost, consolidating piles, etc.) The compost pile area could use a roof so when it rains it doesn't get overly soaked and leak out everywhere. There is enough scrap tin roofing around that we can use it for that. We also got the dry toilet* back in working order so that can be used and the contents composted. After some tender loving care, the compost pile is up to 140 degrees F!!!! I'm such a nerd - I love this stuff. I have found that Haitians are very resourceful and creative sometimes out of necessity, when money or materials aren't available they find a clever way to get the job done (i.e. building or fixing something). Oh, there is also a random solar water heater on the roof, and I fixed that up, cleaned it off, and tested it out. It's not one of those panels with heat exchanger tubes in it, it's a hemisphere of mirrors with a platform in the center (like a sattelite dish) where you can place a pot of water and heat it up that way. It works really well! It was fun playing with it.

The bigger projects are that the larger compost sites in the nearby towns of Limonade and Milot also need some TLC, to make sure they're working properly and geting up to temperature. They are probably a little dried out. Dante, Agronome (more on him later), and I are also going to take finished compost from the Milot site and plant some corn in a controlled experiment - corn in normal soil, corn in 100% compost, corn in 50/50 soil/compost, and the same 3 categories also watered with diluted urine water - so 6 categories in all. This is very useful as a visual to show people the benefit of using compost and urine as soil amendments. I'll be working with this dude known as the "Agronome" who is a Haitian about my age who studied agriculture in university. I think he's even nerdier than I am when it comes to this stuff!

One random thing - anyone who enjoys juvenile humor about excrement as I do would appreciate the words for "taking a dump" or "going number 2" and for "taking a leak" in Kreyol. Taking a dump and poo itself are both kaka (either verb or noun), and peeing is simply pipi (pronounced peepee - also either verb or noun).

I'm glad to be able to do something useful. Everyone in Port au Prince is super busy and I'm able to help them get these other projects crossed off their To Do list since they are too busy to come to this part of the country! In general, I really love everyone I work with, and all the Haitian people I've met as well. They are super friendly, and my Kreyol is progressing, which is helpful!

* SOIL builds and implements dry toilets, as opposed to composting toilets or wet non-composting toilets. This means that the material doesn't actually compost while in the toilet structure, but must be moved to a composting site for composting there. Additionally, it's a dry toilet, meaning that urine is captured separately. There's a urine diversion tray built in to the toilet so the urine is collected in a separate tank. The poo and organic cover material go together and stay very dry since the cover material is extremely dry. This has the added benefit of killing any pathogens (bacteria, parasite worms or eggs, etc.) that are in it, since they all die off rapidly in dry conditions. At home I used leaves or highly shredded paper from work as the organic cover material. Here they use bagasse, which is the leftover plant material from harvesting sugar cane. It is in superabundance here, and the factories are happy to give it away.

I will write more about the pros and cons of these toilets later!

Learn about Haiti

I spent a lot of this past weekend reading. A particularly insightful, troubling, well-written, and (not exaggerating much here) earth-shaking book I devoured is "Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment." Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who set up the famous network of health clinics in Haiti (his great biography is 'Mountains Beyond Mountains') reviewed this book, saying that it is "THE best book for anyone wanting to learn about recent politics in Haiti." And Paul Farmer is LEGIT!

The book goes a long way in explaining why Haiti is so incredibly poor and how it has been beset by a wearisome history of oppression - both domestically and internationally. Surprisingly, the US had a major part to play, and not the positive one I might have hoped for. US and international aid agencies also have not only flaws but outright agendas that often help cripple the country.

For some people this book will be (highly) political. For me, it is simply and profoundly about truth. What happened in the beginning of Haiti's independence, and in its more recent history? What were peoples' motivations? What were the consequences (or fruit) of their actions and decisions? In these decisions, were the Haitians treated with dignity and respect? Where was profound hypocrisy involved?

I truly, truly, truly cannot recommend this book enough. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I had never realized or understood before. It made me furious, it made me cry, and it also gave me hope. (Geeze, that sounds melodramatic, but it is seriously true!!!!) Please, please, read this book!

(The version I read came out in 2007. There is an updated version coming out in November 2010 that additionally covers the period 2007-2010. I would recommend getting the book now anyway!)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Le Bourgne, Jack, and Wisnell

Unfortunately I didn't take many pictures in Le Bourgne...sometimes I feel out of place being the only person walking around with a camera! This is a "tap tap" - a common form of public transportation. They are modified pickup trucks, and usually very colorfully decorated - very reminiscent of how trucks were elaborately painted in India and Nepal. Unlike there, most here in Haiti have Christian imagery and/or phrases. (The books in the pictures are bibles, one portrays Mark and the other Romans)

Le Bourgne is a beautiful but poor town by the ocean. There is a beautiful beach just 30 minutes away by tap-tap. Erinold (an employee of SOIL, I earlier misspelled his name as Arinol) has some family there, so we usually ate meals with them and stayed in an apartment SOIL owns. A family lives on the first floor of this apartment, and on the second floor there are two rooms, sparsely furnished. The three of us stayed in these, and there was no electricity to have a fan so it was unbearably hot. Jack and I decided to move our bed (we had to share a bed!) to the roof where it is cool and there's a nice breeze. Wisnell also moved his mattress up there and LOVED it. He was so excited to be sleeping up there! I am amazed at how people here get used to sleeping in the heat, but that doesn't mean they like! Jack and I actually got cold!! - probably the only time I'll ever be cold here in Haiti. It was great going to sleep under the stars, and waking up to the morning view from the roof. Rooftops are a big thing here, and the place I stay at in Cap Haitien also has a great rooftop with a garden and a compost pile. I will put up pictures on that and the projects I've done around the house in a later post!

We went to Le Bourne to meet with the mayor who is a big supporter of SOIL. Jack wanted to talk to him about his ideas (more on that later). Unfortunately, the mayor was actually down in Cap Haitien so it was ironic that we swapped places. It was a fun trip, and we met a lot of people there, including a woman named Rosie who lived in Jamaca for 20 years but moved back to Haiti to help improve it. We visited with her, and saw her place outfitted with a small solar panel, rainwater collection, food gardens, banana trees, and coconut trees. We ate coconuts hacked open at the top with a machete. They were really good. I'd never eaten the coconut "meat" straight itself before - it was tasty!

Also, a little about Jack and Wisnell. Jack is finishing up his last year of undergraduate study at Notre Dame. His professor is also a priest who has lived in Haiti (crazy huh) and so he is doing research with that priest for SOIL, checking for the presence of helmunth eggs in the compost. He's applying to medical school and wants to live in Haiti after that and set up a clinic, school, and ecological haven. His parents and one sibling are on board and are considering moving out here with him! Jack and I were all excited that I could come out and help work on setting up composting, a fish pond, gardens, greywater treatment, and so on. He's shooting to buy 5-10 acres of land in or near Le Bourgne (he loves the town), so he's making up plans and figuring out how much he'll need to fundraise over the next few years. It is relatively cheap to start something like this in Haiti so I'm confident he'll be able to do it! He's also read Ghandi and likes his emphasis on self-supporting villages and enterprises so we were dreaming about what that could be like. Maybe I'll do an official project through graduate school with him and his project!!

Wisnell is a student and also works part-time for SOIL. He works with children and creative projects to teach about environmental topics, like a "trash to art" project. In the future he wants to continue working on such projects, and to be active in helping poorer people to communicate with each other and work together to build a better future for themselves, and to try to encourage people from the upper classes to build relationships with poorer folks, too. His English is much better than my Creole, and it's fun to work with him on helping each other learn. His younger brother Rosemond won Haiti's version of "American Idol" and now lives in Palo Alto, CA and travels to LA to record music. Wisnell was very happy when I told him I would love to visit Rosemond next time I go out to visit my brother in the Bay Area!

Picture Time!

Weekends here are very slow, so I've got oodles of time to catch up on blogging! Some people at the house here actually live in the town of Milot, about 30 minutes away, so they go home on the weekends. Jack just left on Friday, so I'm the only "bla" (white person...very flattering word, huh!) around. Wisnell is a student and he goes home for most of the day on weekends to see his parents. Tony, our house manager and security guard extraordinaire is in and out. So it's just me and Tikka, our dog. We really bonded yesterday since it was just the two of us. She is an imperfect yet welcome outlet for affection since Elisabeth is so far away!

Here are some pictures from the trip to Le Bourgne!

We passed on a couple of pickup trucks with long, extended beds and tarps for shade to take us to Le Bourgne. Apparently, Wisnell and Erinold were wanting to wait for this van, which has air conditioning. The only problem was that we waited 2 hours in the heat for a two hour ride! Jack and I were complaining! Well this van obviously started undergoing some repairs, so we caught the next one, a pick up truck without a tarp! Oh well, se la vi!

This is a shot looking down the street to the right of where Jack and Wisnell are looking in the next picture.

Jack and Wisnell! Erinold disappeared for a couple of hours - I think he found a friend or something.

Now this picture is shot looking in the direction that Jack and Wisnell are looking in the previous picture (and a little to the left). Those houses don't look very secure on that hill!

Monday, August 16, 2010

quick update

I went on a trip this weekend to a small town called Le Bourgne about a two hours' drive from Cap Haitien. I went with Jack, an American student at Notre Dame, Wisnell, a Haitien who works for SOIL and is also studying English, and Ariand, another Haitian dude that the SOIL people here know who has some family in Le Bourgne. We didn't have electricity there so I've been away from the internet. Tomorrow is my first full weekday in Cap Haitien so it'll be exciting to see what it is like. The house I'm staying at is teeming with people - employees who live here, people who help with the cooking, and other friends who just drop by to hang out. We also have a sweet dog named Tikka. I'm diligently studying Creyole, but it takes time!

Hope everyone is doing well.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Arrived in Haiti!

My bike ride is done, and it was super fun, although predicatably hard at times given the heat and whatnot! I LOVE, the hospitality website for people who are doing touring rides across the country (foreign countries as well). I stayed with so many wonderful, nice, and interesting people along the way from NC to FL!

Here's an update on my day in Haiti so far:

After a long delay due to mechanical issues, my 8:30 AM flight finally left at 3 PM. I had a good flight, and all the Haitians waiting at the terminal were super friendly and had lots of energy. They were apparently discussing the whole topic of Wycliffe Jean running for Haitian President.

Anyway, I was relieved that the airport wasn't as crazy as things in India or Nepal. (Ebeth and I traveled there earlier this year). I found Amy, my SOIL person, relatively quickly. There were also some Mennonite folks arriving that day so I thought that was interesting. One group was MCC and another seemed to be a conservaitve Mennonite group (a woman had the head bonnet thing on and said she was Mennonite). I had thought to myself if I couldn't find Amy, I could go with the Mennonites and use their resources to find out where Amy and the SOIL group are. (If for instance, the lateness of my flight screwed things up with the SOIL schedule). Of course, everything was fine.

One thing that was scarier (but still fun) than INdia/Nepal was the motorcycle ride to SOIL's office and my lodging. THe roads were worse than Nepal, many were unpaved and very rocky/bumpy, and it's noticeably hilly. The trash isn't nearly as bad as India and Nepal which is also nice. Just based on what I have seen, it will be easier to adjust here than India/Nepal. I think I will like it a lot here. I've met a lot of neat people at the place I'm staying. SOIL doesn't have room for me at their offices, and I'm staying just two blocks away at a "Coalition House" shared by several NGOs. I currently have a room to myself with three beds in it, and two fans. I'm most excited about having a fan. That is great! Makes a HUGE difference. Also, there is an internet place right across the street, and on the top floor people have computers with internet access. I'm at the cafe across the street now.

Tomorrow I fly to Cap Haitien, a town in the north, where SOIL originally started. Their operations up there are now largely Haitian-run and managed, which is a good thing. Cap is definitely supposed to be less hectic than Port-au-Prince, and there is even a super fun festival in Cap this weekend that I should be able to go to. It'll be interesting to see what I will get involved with up north, in terms of projects and helping out. I'm planning to meet with the Haiti MCC (Mennonite Central Committee - an organization that does development work, mostly by supporting local initiatives) at the end of August and I'm curious if anything fruitful will come out of MCC learning more about SOIL. I really think their goals and methods line up very, very well and at the minimum I think they would both be glad to know that the other exists and be encouraged by that.

That is all for now. Love to you all,

Friday, August 6, 2010

Lots of biking

I'm currently in Savannah, Georgia in a beautiful thunderstorm being enjoyed after some excellent Thai food with my hosts, Mike and Patty. The riding has been intense, with all the stuff I'm carrying on the bike (food, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, etc.), the extra drag, the extreme temperature/humidity, sunlight, and so on. I definitely overestimated what I can do in a day, based on my experience with century rides in a controlled setting on my racing bike. Oops! 95 to 100 miles is definitely my limit, with 90 being better, and 75 being comfortable. I went 95 today towards Savannah, and fell short by 15 miles and was graciously picked up by Mike. I was rolling along at 9-10 mph at that point, just drained. In general I didn't and don't feel too bad at all, I just can't go fast on my bike! (And my butt hurts a lot while sitting on the bike seat).

Overall it has been a great experience. I enjoyed camping on my own, and I've really enjoyed my hosts so far through I stayed in Charleston, SC the last two nights, having arrived two nights ago after a 12 hour day of biking (8 AM to 8 PM - UGH!) but had a rest day there. Cedric and his housemates and friends were awesome. We went to a going away party for some of their friends that were moving to NYC (so Ebeth and I will hook up with them there!), and on my "day off" went to the beach, swimming in a pool, enjoyed root beer floats, and just hung out. They were a fun group and very active in community affairs, sustainability, and the like. You meet such interesting people through this whole hospitality thing, it's great! I've got to hit the hay now for another long day of biking tomorrow. I have 120 miles to get to Folkston, which is totally unrealistic, and Mike is being kind enough to drop me off far enough that I only have about 95 miles to go.

I've heard more about Haiti as well so I will try to put that up later!